Day Twelve – Auschwitz-Birkenau

We had an early breakfast at 6:30 so that we could leave the hotel by 7:00 a.m. for a 90 minute ride to the Polish town of Oswięcim. The city was located on a major train track between East and West. Shalmi had reminded us that one of the reasons why the Holocaust was considered modern murder was the use of technology and one of the most important aspects was transportation.   The Nazis at one point decided it was easier and more efficient to transport victims to the factories of death, rather than kill them on location. Here in the outskirts of Oswięcim, the Nazis would establish Konzentration Lager [KL] Auschwitz. Auschwitz was not one camp but was a complex of three primary sites: Auschwitz I was the administrative center and concentration camp for primarily Polish prisoners, Auschwitz-Birkenau (Auschwitz II] was the death camp, and Monowitz [Auschwitz III] was for manufacturing and testing facilities, which also had dozens of labor sub-camps.


At the entrance we were met by our guide, Wojciech, who would take us through Auschwitz I which is the Auschwitz State Museum. Wojciech had been our guide several times before and we request him every year both because of his knowledge and his style of interacting with the students. After picking up our headsets, we started under the iconic sign: Arbeit Macht Frei. There, he gave us the history of the camp. Built in the town of Oswięcim, Auschwitz is the Germanization of the name of the town. It was established by the Nazis in 1940 and was in use until the Allied liberation in 1945. The camp complex, he told us, was always in a state of change and evolution. In 1940 there was only Auschwitz I which functioned as a prisoner of war camp. In 1941 Himmler ordered the enlargement of the camp and Auschwitz-Birkenau was created. In 1942, after the Wannsee Conference, this camp starts to function as a death camp.

Wojciech told us that of the 11 million Jews living in Europe, 90% lived in Central and Eastern Europe which is why all of the death camps were located in Poland. Most Polish Jews, about 800,000 were murdered at Treblinka. Auschwitz is the best known, we were told, because it was international. Of the 1.1 – 1.5 million Jews murdered in Auschwitz, 75% of them were not Polish, but because of railroad connections, many Jews were deported here from large centers such as Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague and Berlin. Most of them were killed during the last year the camp was in operation, 1944. In 1940 he told us there were only two languages spoken: German and Polish. By 1944 more than 20 different languages were spoken.

Wojciech showed us the kitchen which was a long building with multiple chimneys located to the right of the entry gate. If you were lucky, you had a job in the kitchen where they were safe from most of the difficult jobs – they often had access to some extra food, and were also protected from the weather extremes, and so their chances of survival were better than those who had to labor outside. Next to the kitchen was the orchestra which played music as the laborers left the camp each morning and returned each evening, often carrying the corpses of the laborers who had died during the day, so that the numbers leaving and returning to camp were exact.

Auschwitz I is not large. It has 28 brick buildings, called Blocks, which served as barracks. The camp is 200 meters long by 300 meters wide. There were 700-1000 people housed in each building. The capacity of Auschwitz was 20,000 inmates.   We were told that the exhibits we would be seeing in the first blocks were created by survivors of Auschwitz in 1956 so we would be seeing what they wanted us to see. The first building we entered was Block 4. In the entry way we are confronted by the quote from George Santayana: “The one who does not remember history is bound to live through it again.”

The living conditions in the camp were severe – hard work, starvation, disease and brutal treatment – so that the average time between one’s arrival in Auschwitz I and his death was about 2 months. In the 5 years of the operation of the cam, an estimated 1.3 million people arrived and 1.1 million were murdered. 90% of the victims were Jewish and most of them never saw the sign, Arbeit Macht Frei as they were taken straight to Auschwitz-Birkenau and gassed. An urn with a small amount of human ash in Block 4 symbolizes the loss of all these lives.


We were shown glass cases which housed documentary evidence of the registration process at Auschwitz. One case held samples of questionnaires which were required to be completed by the new arrivals: basic personal identification, occupation, but also such questions as how many gold teeth one had. Only 400,000 prisoners received numbered tattoos. One million victims of the camps were never prisoners of the camp; they were never registered. Wojciech spoke to us of the example of Anne Frank, who is not counted among the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was transported here, registered, given a number, but then was transported to Bergen-Belsen where she died. We were also shown several pictures of the arrival and selection process of a transport of Hungarian Jews which arrived in 1944.

In one photograph piles of personal belongings which had been carefully packed and carried by the new arrivals in their suitcases were being sorted into piles. These possessions would be stored in warehouses which were called “Canada”. Why Canada? A well-known Polish author had travelled pre-war extensively in and written about Canada as a land of opportunity, full of chances for wealth (describing the gold rush). Prisoners regarded working in the warehouses, sorting possessions as a good place to work because it was possible you might be able to find and eat some food from the suitcases or find something valuable which you might be able to trade. Also, the Nazis wanted the inmates handling clothing and other items which would be sent back to Germany, to be clean and therefore they had access to more hygiene than other prisoners. The average lifespan of a laborer in Auschwitz might be 3 months, but some who worked in the Canadakommando were able to survive for several years.

Another photograph shows a member of the Canadakommando talking to a woman who had just arrived on a transport. This was forbidden. The Nazis wanted to keep the Jews in the dark as long as possible about their fate to avoid any chaos or uprising, so having camp inmates pass along ANY information was dangerous and one could be punished severely, even with death. And yet, from memoirs, including Elie Wiesel’s Night, we know that some members risked this to help save Jews with valuable information.


In Block 5 were exhibited the ‘material evidence of crimes’: belongings brought by victims to Auschwitz, confiscated by the SS and found after liberation. Thousands of items, every one belonging to a man, woman, or child, murdered in the camp. Separate rooms contained shoes, artificial limbs and crutches, eyeglasses, prayer shawls, shaving kits, household cooking items, and other items which had been packed in their labeled suitcases.   25% of the victims in the camp were children (14 years or younger). 240,000 children perished in Auschwitz. Several cases contained baby clothes, dolls, and rattles.   In one long hall, with glass cases on either side from floor to ceiling were shoes – tens of thousands of shoes of different styles and sizes. These cases provided physical evidence of the existence of so many victims as well as giving us some insight into what they might have thought would be their future. Before a case of tins of shoe polish, Wojciech noted that these would be packed by men who thought they might need to be looking their best, to look for a job, providing evidence that the Jews were unaware of their fate as they packed their suitcases.

Before we entered a long room in which we were asked to take no photos, Wojciech said “Nowhere else can you be as close to the victims of the camp as in this room.” A wall-to-wall display case held more than 4,000 pounds of human hair. The hair was sold to textile manufacturers for production of army uniforms or gloves and socks for railroad workers. We were shown a bolt of fabric; 30% of it was made from human hair. We could see strands of hair protruding from the fabric.

Leaving Block 5, we were taken next to Block 7 which showed us the living quarters of the prisoners in Auschwitz.  Walking through the hall of the building we saw photographs of the predominantly Polish prisoners, women on the left and men on the right, with their name, prisoner number, nationality, date deported to Auschwitz and date of death.  We had been told that the average life expectancy of a prisoner in Auschwitz I was 2 months because of the harsh conditions and the pictures bore this out.  Intentional starvation was a goal of the Nazis; annihilation through work. Prisoners were allotted about 800 calories a day if they were lucky. The normal dietary needs of a person is 2,000 calories a day.

These photographs were taken as a part of the processing into the camp, most by Wilhelm Brasse, himself a prisoner.  He spoke fluent German and was a photographer before the war.  This made him useful to the Nazis who wanted good photographs of the prisoners as well as someone to take pictures at their private SS parties and of the experimental surgeries.  In this manner he was able to survive the war.  Why did the Nazis take pictures of the prisoners? Wojiech said that only Polish prisoners were photographed. They were traditional police photographs for purposes of identification should a prisoner escape. Only Poles were likely to try to escape since other inmates would be unlikely to survive without the ability to speak Polish, so they were not photographed. After Auschwitz began tattooing numbers on prisoners, the photographing of inmates was no longer required and was stopped.

Wojciech told us that it was traditional for a moment of silence to be observed at Jewish burial in memory of the departed.  If that were to be done for each person whose photograph hung in the corridors of Block 7, it would require 8 hours.  If this same moment of silence was to be observed for each of the 1.1 million victims of Auschwitz, it would take two and a half years.

In Block 11, which served as the prison for the camp we saw three types of punishment cells: dark cell, starvation cell and the standing cell. Time in a punishment cell could be a death sentence.   Downstairs we saw three types of special punishment cells: dark cell, starvation cell and the standing cell. The dark cells were used to punish prisoners who were seen as lazy. Ten to thirty people would be crammed into a dark cell and many would suffocate.   The starvation cell was essentially a death cell. Wojciech told us the story of Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan friar, who volunteered to take the punishment of another prisoner in a starvation cell and died. In that cell, in 1979 Pope John Paul II came and prayed and left a large candle to commemorate the spot. There were four standing cells in which three or four people could be forced to stand for days at a time. There was a gate at the bottom through which prisoners had to crawl and then stand up. They would leave the cell to go to work in the morning and return to the standing cell in the evening. This punishment could last three to four days and many died in the midst of the punishment.

One of the camp infractions was smoking which would give a prisoner 5 days in a special punishment cell. Smoking meant the prisoner had access to the outside world and was able to smuggle in contraband.   We were told that if one person escaped from Auschwitz, that 10 other prisoners would be brought to one of these cells and punished. 800 tried to escape and 147 people successfully escaped from Auschwitz which meant that over 1400 people were taken to Block 11 and starved. This was one of the reasons prisoners did not try to regularly escape; they did not feel they had the right to risk lives other than their own. In addition, if a prisoner escaped, his whole family could be killed in retaliation.

After leaving block 11, we viewed the execution wall, called the Wall of Death, between Blocks 10 and 11, where tens of thousands of prisoners were lined up naked and shot once in the back of the head.

We visited Block 27, an exhibit created by Yad Vashem which opened about 4 years ago. In the 1970’s the Auschwitz State Museum started allowing national exhibits to be set up in different blocks. Holland, Hungary, France and Belgium, for example, each have a special exhibit highlighting that nation’s experience during the Holocaust. Wojciech said the Israeli exhibit is aimed at non-Jewish visitors who are not familiar with the Holocaust, to create context for what happened in Auschwitz. From the perspective of Israel / Yad Vashem, Auschwitz-Birkenau has a special place, because it is the symbol of Jewish suffering in Europe. Most Jews didn’t die in Auschwitz but it is symbolic of what the Holocaust means to Jews. The exhibit has three rooms: (1) Pre-War Jewish Life: in which Jewish life before the war (cultural, political, social, religious, private/leisure)is portrayed in film and pictures; (2) Nazi Ideology: has 6 screens which show Nazi propaganda speeches with subtitles in six languages; and (3) “Geography of Murder” shows the extermination camps as well as killing sites on a huge wall map. There are then an additional three rooms which commemorate the victims: (1) How Jews Coped During the Holocaust: short video clip testimony of survivors speaking of their individual Holocaust experiences; (2) Traces of Life: artwork and children’s drawing from the war years from camps, orphanages and hiding places which have been traced in pencil on the walls with background music of children singing and playing, and (3) The Book of Names: In a long room, a book as big as the room, fills two sides of thousands of pages, listing the names and some information such as place of birth and birthdate, place and date of death, if these were known, of more than four million documented Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This was a powerful exhibit for many of our students who found their own last name or the name of someone they knew in the book.


Our last stop in Auschwitz I was the site of the crematorium of the camp. There we saw the home of the camp commandant Rudolf Hoss where he lived with his wife and 5 children. At the end of war he tried to escape and hide but was discovered and a trial was held in Warsaw. Found guilty of war crimes, he was brought back to Auschwitz and publicly hanged on the gallows which stood before us, in 1947.  The gallows was used once — for his execution. Wojciech said that there were more than 8,000 individuals who administered the Auschwitz complex and that only about 700 were apprehended. From where we stood we could also see a large two story gray building that housed an SS hospital on the second floor. On the first floor, Wojciech told us, we should be able to guess the function of the building. There was a cast iron ornament above the entry lamp of a man sitting on a keg: the first hall was a canteen or bar.


We then walked through the crematorium which was used to cremate the bodies of people who had perished in the camp and had been used as the prototype for the crematoria we would see this afternoon in Birkenau. In September 1941 this crematorium became, also, a temporary, experimental gas chamber to test the efficiency of Zyklon B. About 10,000 people were gassed here.

After a brief bag lunch on the bus, we drove the short distance to Auschwitz-Birkenau where Shalmi spent several hours showing us the death camp. He talked about how the camp had changed in the spring of 1944 when the Nazis expected one million Hungarian Jews to be transported here. It was then that they added the rail spur coming into the camp, preparing for the influx of prisoners.


Standing just inside the iconic gate to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Shalmi reminded us that for the Nazis, Jews were not a scapegoat for other issues. Nazis believed that Jews by their mere biological essence were destructive and took this belief seriously, to the end of the war, even when it was apparent to all that they were losing. If they lost the war, but rid the world of Jews, they felt they would have accomplished something. Shalmi told us that Hitler wrote in his second book, “I don’t want people to hate the Jews.” He also said that in Commandant Rudolph Hoss’ memoir he talks of going to visit the women’s camp in 1944 and sees cruelty and brutality on the part of the women in power who had come from Ravensbruck and was extremely upset and said that the brutality had to stop as it was unnecessary. And yet it was difficult to carry out such actions without brutality. Paulina told us of an eyewitness who had said “The only human thing about Auschwitz was the brutality.”

Shalmi also said at this point that he did not like the use of the term ‘death camp’. The average time from entry into Auschwitz-Birkenau to death and cremation was about 3 hours. “This is a death factory”, he has said many times. “Auschwitz-Birkenau produced death.”

We visited the quarantine barracks   Towards the end of the war, Germany needed more workers as they sent more men and young boys to the front. Jewish workers were shipped into Germany to fulfill that need. The problem was that these Jews coming from camps were poorly nourished and could have diseases and secondly, they were Jews: according to Nazi racial ideology, by definition they were disease. Germany by now was essentially ‘Judenrein’ [Jew-free] but they were essential to the war effort so they were brought here and housed [no sleeping area – just an open space at one end and long rows of latrines at the other] for three days until they were declared disease-free and could continue their journey into Germany. These prisoners were never officially registered as inmates at Auschwitz although they did spend a few days there. They were therefore not tattooed with a number.

We also saw the Czech family camp which Shalmi had spoken to us about in Terezin.  The Czech Jews had been transported to Auschwitz to reduce the overcrowding prior to the Red Cross visit as part of the beautification project.  Once the visit had occurred, however, the Czech camp was liquidated and all of its inmates sent to the gas chambers.  Again, Shalmi reminded us that the last thing the Czech Jews did before entering the gas chamber, was to sing the Czech national anthem.

Passing a large pool of water, Shalmi told us it was one of two such pools, required by the Swiss insurance company, Allianz, before it would agree to insurance Auschwitz-Birkenau. These bureaucrats never asked “Should they be insuring such a place?”   Reminding us that the Nuremberg Laws were written by German attorneys, Shalmi asked us to reflect upon the following question: Is the legal solution the moral solution?


Shalmi spoke to us of cultural literacy. Certain terms mean things to people because of a certain experience. He said that we all spoke English but certain terms in English mean different things to different people. For Jews, he said , words like ‘selection’, ‘transport’, and ‘train’ are loaded words because of the Holocaust experience. The most important word, he said, was the ‘ramp’. The ramp that we were looking at was where arriving Jews went through the process of selection as to who was to live and who was to die. This was the place many people were forcibly separated from family members forever. Many survivors he interviewed for testimony for Yad Vashem spoke to him of their life ‘before the ramp’ and ‘after the ramp’. “For me this is a sacred place”, he said. He told us several emotional stories shared with him as he chronicled their testimony for Yad Vashem in which they described their experiences on The Ramp.”

We saw the remains of the Crematoria II which had been destroyed by the Nazis before fleeing. We were told that the capacity of the gas chambers was determined by the number of corpses which could be burned in 24 hours. At its peak, the crematoria could deal with 12,000 per day.


Crematoria III was covered and there are some restoration and excavation projects under way.


We next walked to the ‘sauna’ which served as the building where those who had been chosen to live were processed (uniforms, tattooed, shaved). We walked through the processing rooms, and spent some time looking at the photographs displayed which had been found in peoples’ suitcases.

On arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau, it had been very noisy with many large tour groups from numerous nations. Sometimes we had to move because of the noise or conversations coming from other tour groups. As we left, late in the afternoon, it was much less crowded, although groups were still coming in, and an air of quiet had descended on this sacred place. We could hear birds, some machinery in the distance, a passing train — but the primary sound we heard was the sound of our footsteps as our shoes crunched the stones and dirt on the path toward the gate, our minds full of individual thoughts after an emotionally and physically exhausting day in this place where one can truly feel “the presence of absence.”





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